Through the course of time, words can change meaning. The “cloud” used to be composed of water in the sky, “sick” referred to someone who felt ill, and “gay” used to mean happy. Another example of how words can change is the word “tolerance.”
D.A. Carson, in his brilliant work The Intolerance of Tolerance, describes how the definition of tolerance has shifted through the years from “accepting the existence of different views” to “acceptance of different views.” In other words, tolerance used to be about granting other people the right to disagree. In more recent times, though, tolerance has come to mean accepting everyone’s opinions as valid and equal to one’s own.
By this new definition of tolerance, Christians are clearly intolerant. From the very beginning of the church, the apostles declared a simple and unwavering message: “There is salvation in Jesus and no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts4:12).
Words like that are exclusive…narrow-minded…intolerant. They reject the pluralism of our age and point toward a belief in absolute truth. In popular opinion today, absolute truth is perceived as the ultimate enemy of tolerance. The new tolerance embraces moral relativism and utterly rejects any notion that one person’s beliefs could be superior to any other.
In light of this shifting meaning, it’s helpful to review a few simple facts:
- Some ideas are better than others. When early alchemists attempted to turn lead into gold, they were pursuing something doomed to failure. They didn’t understand the fundamentals of atomic physics. They were attempting to convert one element into a completely different element, which we now know is impossible apart from a nuclear reaction. The history of mankind is full of dumb ideas that were (sometimes) replaced by better ideas.
- Some things are still wrong. Pedophilia, rape, and murder are evil, regardless of anyone’s opinions to the contrary. Moral relativism must ultimately give way to some recognition of the broadly accepted reality that some behavior is unacceptable. Whether it’s called sin or mental illness or maladaptive coping techniques, some behavior is wrong.
- We can’t all be right. Hindus believe there are millions of gods. Christians believe there is only one God. They can’t both be right. Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God. Muslims believe he was not.They can’t both be right. Atheists believe there is no God. Christians believe there is a God who revealed Himself to us in the person of Jesus. They can’t both be right.
So let’s be finished with this new definition of tolerance. It doesn’t work. Let’s return to the simple reality that the truth is better than a lie. And let’s embrace the greatest truth of all, that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again to bring new life. There is salvation in no one else.